African-American filmmaker Allen Willis dies at 94

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Allen Willis, a pioneering African-American filmmaker who documented significant periods in San Francisco Bay area history, has died at age 94.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Allen Willis, a pioneering African-American filmmaker who documented significant periods in San Francisco Bay area history, has died at age 94.

Willis passed away Feb. 23 in Oakland, according to the East Bay Media Center, which houses his archives.

After moving to the Bay area in the 1950s, Willis became the first African American in California broadcast journalism when he took a job at San Francisco’s KQED television in 1963, the Berkeley-based center said. Before that, he studied under photographer Ansel Adams and collaborated with filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Willis received numerous awards, including three Emmys, for films that chronicled major events and cultural movements such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 "white backlash" speech at Stanford University and the psychedelic drug experience. His 1970 film "Stagger Lee" documented an interview with Black Panther leader Bobby Seale during his incarceration in the San Francisco County Jail.

Longtime friend Mel Vapour, co-founder of the East Bay Media Center, described Willis as a "cultural provocateur" with a keen eye and an inquisitive nature.

"When it came to events here in the Bay area, he looked at them as explosive, exciting and they need to be documented," Vapour said Monday. "He was always out there capturing the moment."

After retiring from KQED in 1986, Willis continued writing a column for the Marxist-Humanist publication "News and Letters" until 2008, under the name John Alan.

Willis is survived by a sister, Thelma Willis Prather, of Maryland, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. He was preceded in death by his wife, Lillian.

A memorial is planned for April 2 at 1 p.m. at the Niebyl-Proctor Library in Oakland, the East Bay Media Center said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

(AP Photo/East Bay Media Center, Mel Vapour)

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